There’s something wrong with how “terror” attacks are reported.

Just a few hours ago, a stabbing attack on Russell Square, London claimed a life. The story was picked up by major Western newspapers as a “suspected terrorist attack” (NY Daily News, Telegraph, News.co.au, Independent and many more), even though current reports hint of mental health issues.

This mimics very closely the shootings in Munich a few weeks ago. Much of the initial hysteria behind it was due to suspected refugee/Da’ish involvement, when the suspect, Ali S., was probably inspired by something/someone else.

Of course, these are but one, maybe two false positives in an environment where (ostentatiously radical Islamist) terrorists run rampage across Europe and perhaps America — which is incidentally a thought that I suspect many people harbour. I don’t discount that, since as it stands the majority of public acts of violence in Europe/America over the past year have been linked to radical Islamism.

But there are two things that are tenuous when reading closer into the media’s reporting. First, the need for major news sources to talk about the word “terror” in many acts of public violence within the Western sphere implies a near-natural link between public violence and ‘terrorism’. Yes, terrorism, in its crudest sense of evoking terror amongst the people, is conducted via public violence, and thus the link ought to make sense. This is right — until we question the definitions of “terrorism” in the public conscience, which mostly get linked to “radical Islamism” or some other variant. Are we thus arguing that all forms of public violence today must be suspected first and foremost as “radical Islamists from Da’ish inflicting an attack on us?”, and then left as “guilty until proven innocent?”

What this does to the Western world is merely reinforcing the picture people have of their ‘idyllic Western world’ at threat from a singular evil entity. And when it turns out to be something else, that attack — lone wolf inspired by video games, mental illness — immediately becomes a sigh of relief, a “thank God this isn’t another of those ‘terrorists’ in the Middle East”. That approach firstly intensifies that fear of radical Jihadists, precisely playing into their hands (they want us to fear them), and secondly worsens the reputation that Europeans/Americans of Middle Eastern descent get, which is something to think about given Da’ish’s shift in foreign strategy and Trumpism going on.

The second tenuous issue was foreshadowed earlier: when they say terrorism, what are they really saying? Is a Breivik-style attack considered terrorism, and if you say it is, is it as important as an attack by some guy who suddenly claimed allegiance to Da’ish via Twitter and then carried out the attack? Is it necessary to check if the suspect’s ethnicity is Middle Eastern? What does that do to the public definition of “terrorism”?

I’m reminded of the 2003 Black Eyed Peas’ hit, “Where is the Love”:

Overseas, yeah, we try to stop terrorism. 
But we still got terrorists here livin’ 
In the USA, the big CIA
The Bloods and The Crips and the KKK

Charles Tilly, a noted sociologist and political scientist, once questioned the use of the term “terrorism”, arguing that these terms are “politically powerful but analytically elusive” in his 2004 paper. When the media helps shape the definition of “terrorism” in one particular(ly skewed pseudo-)definition, it really doesn’t benefit public discussion of terrorism and its impact on the world, because who can talk about something without agreeing on what it is? And at this point, “terrorism” is more than a political science term, but a term of politics and emotion, which makes it harder to actually talk about because it becomes so emotionally charged.

These two ideas planted in us by media reporting — implying all violent attacks are somehow assumed first to have a form of radical Jihadist motive, and limiting discussion of the definition of terrorism to a particular subset of it — don’t aid us in understanding what terrorism is all about. Ultimately, why is media reporting helping us live in fear that the next public act of violence is 1) abnormal and 2) by our “enemies”, when we could very well focus on what’s truly important — rationally understanding terrorism?

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